Philip Hensher: Does anyone really understand the National Curriculum?

Teachers must live in dread of the man from the ministry making a visit
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The Independent Online

Students should have a sense that they were working to externally established levels; they should be given a chance to attain the same tasks, wherever they went to school and whatever their socio-economic background; and, like many education curricula across the world, it might ultimately unify the nation. These were the original reasons for the establishment of the national curriculum. Subsequent governments were never happier than when putting their aims down on paper, and in 1999 the National Curriculum was reformed.

Some Statement of Aims was placed on top of it. These are four; to establish entitlement, regardless of culture or class; to establish standards; to promote continuity and coherence; and to promote public understanding. Forget those first three. The last aim, or objective, or whatever it is, to promote public understanding, is an easily tested one.

Here are some formal statutory aims for the curriculum – I've picked out some especially enjoyable objectives here. The curriculum creates "successful learners who communicate well in a range of ways; know about big ideas and events that shape our world; confident individuals who have a sense of self-worth and personal identity; make healthy lifestyle choices; are open to the excitement and inspiration offered by the natural world and human achievements; and responsible citizens who respect others and act with integrity; sustain and improve the environment, locally and globally; take account of the needs of present and future generations in the choices they make, and can change things for the better."

Glorious stuff. I have to say that very little of this means anything at all, though it does closely resemble extracts from an interview with a Miss World contestant, circa 1976. Insofar as one can extract any meaningful programme for education from it, it seems to claim that the education system will aim to produce people who don't suffer from a major mental illness. (Or, if you prefer, "have a sense of personal identity").

Can the government really complain if the general public has the impression that education in schools nowadays appears to consist of a lot of pious nothing-in-particular? Nobody understands what their children are supposed to be learning, or how these ludicrous aims are supposed to be achieved. What they do understand is how tragically inadequate many products of education are these days.

The National Curriculum was probably quite a good idea in the first instance, but as time has gone on, aspiration has been loaded on to learning outcome on to objective on to aim until nobody, even those within schools, has much idea of what they are supposed to be teaching, or how any of this is supposed to be achieved through teaching. The trouble is that once you have an objective, however patently ludicrous, you create a need for an inspector to descend to inquire how any of this rubbish is being fulfilled.

The teachers of the land must live in dread of the man from the ministry knocking on their door, and inquiring what they have done today to ensure that B took account of the needs of present and future generations in the choices they made.

We should all become very wary indeed when anything passes from the realm of the ordinary educated person to the field of the professional. There is no need whatsoever for matters of education to be talked about in ways not clear, meaningful and concrete. These are matters of considerable general concern, and there seems no way at all of inviting education professionals to make sense. At one point, the select committee's report wonders "how entitlement and differentiation should be balanced for these [less able] learners?" I could gaze at that sentence forever without extracting any sense from it.

The select committee tells us that the problem with education today is that it's too prescriptive, too controlled, too intricate and too top-down. I would say the problem with education today is that it is almost impossible to understand what it is trying to do. If it could be handed over, for just one year, to people prepared to say, over and over again "I don't understand" and "I don't see" and "Please, say something meaningful in something that resembles the English language," what an improvement in education might follow.